Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Crimean Conundrum

Some will no doubt observe that I would say this, but it seems to me that an oversized proportion of the idiotic comments that crop up within today's public discourse* are delivered, with confidence, by people having a poor knowledge and understanding of history.  

170 years ago Britain went to war with Russia in the Crimea. The origins of this conflict are amongst the most deliciously complex in the modern era (more on that 'momentarily', as they say on American airplanes), but a key moment occurred in the lead up when the Tsar made a surprise and secretive visit to London and secured what he believed was a solid understanding with Queen Victoria**. 

This mis-apprehension was based on several significant mis-appraisals of how British government institutions (and the native media) actually operate. Alexander just assumed that the monarch had final say in foreign policy, rather like he did. 

Seeing simplicity where there is complexity is often a sure path to being perversely wrong. 

Some of the motivations for conflict in the 1850s appear recognisable from our own geopolitical milieu, yet they seem to have been accumulating and interacting in often strikingly unfamiliar ways. 

There was religion — Christianity split between its eastern and western denominations with some epic clerical brawls breaking out in the Holy Land, plus Islam, both established and Jihadi — commercial interests, large and small scale nationalism (conservative and radical), naval posturing, ethnic cleansing, strategic concerns about zones of influence and civilisational balance, deluded attempts to re-enact the semi-mythological past, distrust of the French, sympathy for the plight of the Poles, Pan-Slavism and name but the most salient elements. 

Overall one could say it's an even bigger mélange than the one which would later take shape prior to 1914. 

History is to some extent always like this, yet sadly it will not stop people profering infantile one-dimensional explanations for major events. You will be aware of the kind of thing I mean. "Putin was provoked by NATO...The Iraq War was all about greed..." and so on.

And these mis-conceptions about how things start lead to problems later on when they apparently end. The over-simplistic idea that Germany alone had started WWI led to a post-armistice settlement which contributed to the next big morass of ruinous collisions in the 1930s.

History, just like physics, has its cats suspended in a state of confounding ambiguity. 

I recently came across a description of of the Johnson premiership as “an unsustainable mass of painful paradoxes” and this struck me as a decent enough working description of the driving forces behind much of what we call world events. 

* Thanks to social media these are more obvious than ever, and owing to the death of Queen Elizabeth we have just experienced a bit of a squall. 

** The manner that these encounters have a consistent tendency to lead to a later gathering of misunderstandings, did not stop Peres and Arafat meeting in similar clandestine circumstances at my Aunty's house outside London. 

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